Netflix says it used A.I. to draw backgrounds in its latest anime due to a ‘labor shortage.’ Artists aren’t happy

A lot of people are talking about Netflix’s new anime short, titled “The Dog & The Boy,”—but not for the reason the streaming company might have hoped.

On Wednesday, the company revealed that the short, developed by WIT Studio, used an artificial intelligence program as part of the creative process. 

“As an experimental effort to help the anime industry, which has a labor shortage, we used image generation technology for the background images of all three-minute video cuts,” Netflix Japan announced on Twitter on Tuesday.

That revelation sparked a strong reaction from artists on social media, who criticized the streaming company for trying to avoid paying human artists and pinning the blame on a shortage of talent. 

Some social media users quoted a scene from a 2016 documentary about renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki, the director behind films like Spirited Away. Miyazaki, after seeing a demo of A.I.-generated animation, said he was “utterly disgusted,” and called the program “an insult to life itself.”

Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Studios argue that machine learning and A.I. programs can help them create complicated visual effects much faster than before. Rob Bredow, the chief creative officer for Industrial Light and Magic, claimed at Fortune’s Brainstorm A.I. conference in December that A.I. could shave the time taken for “face-swapping”—like showing a younger Mark Hamill during The Mandalorian’s season finale—from weeks to just seconds.

Is there a labor shortage in anime?

The global market for Japanese anime reached $21 billion in 2021, according to the Association of Japanese Animation. Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, on its release in 2021, broke U.S. records for the largest opening weekend for a foreign-language film. 

And it’s big business for Netflix, with the company’s lead for anime telling The Hollywood Reporter in 2021 that half of its global subscribers watched some anime. 

Yet there are not enough skilled animators to meet the demand for Japanese cartoons. Anime is a labor-intensive ordeal, with around 200 animators are needed to create a single title, according to Nikkei Asia.

George Wada, WIT Studio’s president, told Nikkei Asia last year that the industry’s labor shortage is “a real crisis,” and that the anime boom meant more talent was needed “to keep up with demand.”

Yet the industry is also infamous for low pay and overwork. Illustrators could make as little as $200 a month, and even top animators might only get $3,800 in monthly pay, reported the New York Times in 2021. Freelancers at some studios reported working 400 hours a month, going for weeks without a single day off.

‘Please draw it yourself’

Artists complain that image-generation A.I. programs, like Stable Diffusion, are trained on image datasets scraped from the internet without their consent. They also worry that these programs can then copy their art styles without compensation. 

Earlier this year, three artists launched a class-action lawsuit against the developers of Stable Diffusion and Midjourney, arguing that the generative A.I. programs were trained on billions of images “with­out the con­sent of the orig­i­nal artists.”

Communities in Japan are trying to separate human-authored and A.I.-authored artwork. Last October, Pixiv, a community popular with Japanese artists, said that it would allow users to filter out A.I.-generated work when using the platform. While the platform said it didn’t want to bar A.I. works, entirely, it admitted that “the regulations and ethics discourse haven’t kept up with the pace of this transition.”

Some creators have tried to discourage their fans from using A.I. “For fan art, please draw it yourself,” Natsuiro Matsuri, a streamer with over a million YouTube subscribers, asked her fans last October. “I didn’t realize how high-quality AI was these days.”

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